Monday, September 24, 2007

Leaving Leran in the Broad Daylight

Since it seemed village tradition that parties in Leran occurred in pairs, it was good news that Billy and Sally were planning a Thursday luncheon BBQ at the same time we were scheduling our Friday apres-midi going away party. And, luckily, all the usual suspects were available for both occasions.
As we sat on Billy and Sally's patio on yet another perfect summer afternoon, we started to say our good-byes. But before the mood could get too gushy, Alan pulled out his guitar and started answering requests for songs. Billy provided backup support and some of the ladies practiced synchronized hand movements. All went well until Doug called out for "Rocky Raccoon". From the looks on the faces of the Brits he might as well been speaking in Esperanto. They had never heard of the song....a Beatles song off The
White Album! Only us Yanks and the Aussies knew it. What is the explanation for this?

Billy made a comment that one of the great things about parties in Leran is that you seem to take in more bottles of wine than you put out. That's probably pretty close to truth. People are generous, always conscious about bringing a bottle or two.

For our party, I spent most of the day prepping hors d'oeuvres and cleaning around the house. The party went well for the most part. But, when we ran out of wine glasses at our party, we switched to French working glasses. I was very surprised by the reaction of a few people who were hesitant to drink out of anything but wine glasses. I guess they have never been on backpacking trips where you drink out of whatever is handed to you. Later in the evening I was too lazy to wash anymore dishes and I grabbed an empty mustard jar and received a few more appalled comments.

As the evening wound down and only the hard core remained, we once again drifted back to wondering why none of the Brits had ever heard of "Rocky Raccoon". They thought we were off our rocker. Doug went to the Internet and pulled up a website showing that the song was indeed written by Paul McCartney, and there it is on The White Album, right after Piggies. Alan remembered that he had it on his IPod and went to get it so that we could all listen to it, but none of the Brits (except for Andy) were even vaguely familiar with it. Some later Google research informed me that the song was apparently a parody of Bob Dylan's John Wesley Harding album, and that it is supposedly meant to sound "cowboy-style". Ha-ha.

Sunday morning's departure, 4 1/2 months after arrival, loomed. Leaving Leran is not easy. We leave behind a whole new life, rich with people and memories. Moab is on the horizon, after two days in London. But Leran is already on the brain.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Roof Terrace Follies

One of the driving forces for buying a house in France (or it could have been Italy or Spain) is the charm of the Old World architecture. Really, old houses for Americans date back to 1890. We specifically chose a village house and knew there would be constraints. We don't want the integrity of the historical character compromised. But, change is inevitable, even in rural France. Electricity, plumbing, TV and even broadband internet. All of these 'improvements' are not without their impact. Wires obscuring the horizon, satellite dishes hanging off rooftops like giant white sunflowers, and huge PVC pipes protruding from stone buildings. Modernization.

We too, wanted our piece of paradise, a roof terrace. We want to do it right, keeping within the historical character of our village. Before we ask for official permission to construct a terrace, we want some direction, so we aren't paying to design something that they will not approve, and we just can't seem to get on the right path. We are used to following guidelines, a manual, protocol, and what we get are whims, feelings, and intuitions.

What of this roof terrace, some commenters ask? The short answer is simply: "Je ne sais pas encore!" I still don't know. There's always next year. If that's enough information for you, stop reading NOW. The long answer would rival the Da Vinci Code in complexity. So to recap, as concisely as allowable by French law, here goes:
  • After dinking around for two months, we went with Tim, our construction planner to the CAUE (Conseil d'Architecture d'Urbanisme et de l'Environment) in Foix to meet with M. Assayde who looked at our terrace designs. He does not make the final decision, but has telepathic powers with those that do, and is therefore able to foretell the likelihood of obtaining planning permission.
  • M. Assayde's initial response was moreorless "no way, no how" that we would be able to alter the front facade of our house. He did cheerfully suggest that we could probably get approval to cut a hole in the roof so that we could look straight up and see the sky, as long as we retained the front and side walls and the rest of the roof.
  • At this point I'm mentally practicing Le Bras de Honeur for a dramatic exit but restrain myself.
  • Since M. Assayde is not the final decision, that being left to the ABF (unidentified initials in government-speak) in Lavelanet, and there being no written protocol, he hedged a little and suggested taking the documents to the final Powers-that-Be.
  • Tim agreed and called the ABF to set up a meeting; they however are terribly overworked, just returning from the annual August shutdown, and would he terribly mind faxing the documents. That way, they could be reviewed IMMEDIATELY! I'm sorry, I don't think that word is in the French language.
  • Tim faxes the documents, waits a week or so, calls again, and learns that the gentleman can't get to them because he is going on vacation next week. And realize, that this isn't even for the real actual approval, this is just for the preliminary pretend approval.
  • Tim also learns that the planning permission process is changing October 1, 2007. You know the expression, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it?" So, what could possibly be wrong? The upshot of it all is, that requests submitted after October 1 and on the books in excess of 6 months will automatically be approved. Am I hearing this correctly? Is this some sort of work incentive? Maybe the ABF folks are being paid on a "piece rate" system.
  • Our neighbor and friend Alan, upon hearing portions of my tale of woe earlier this summer, suggested buying a couple of the biggest Veluxes (skylights) available and just forget to put the glass part in them. Apparently you don't have to get planning permission for skylights. Let's see, maybe 6 of them, each 3'X3' would do. Jeez, Alan, your idea was more creative than any Tim the planner has come up with yet, and I'm paying him money!

So, are you sorry you asked? Me too.

New Shoes

I can't remember exactly where we were the other day when an awareness hit me. But, then that was exactly the point. We were driving along a road, some road, du chemin, and it occurred to me that I had forgotten that we were in France. Lost in thought, I took in the undulating fields of wheat, sorghum, sunflowers and corn. Cats and hawks hunted newly-harvested fields. It could have been Colorado or Montana, Wyoming or even Utah. It doesn't matter where. It just didn't occur to me.

This is not to say that I have become complacent about my foreign surroundings. Quite the opposite. Or that I have 'been there, done that'. Hardly, by a long shot. Maybe it's like buying a new pair of shoes and it takes a while to break them in, no matter how much you wear them, before they feel comfortable and you forget you have them on. Maybe I'm getting broken in.

I just hope I remember to bring the same pair of shoes when I return so I don't have to start all over.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A Golden Closure

I walk outside the door and everything is shades of gold. In my limited experience, I think it's hard to screw up autumn. The weather is intended to entice you out of those dog-days of summer. But it's been hard to start new projects lately. I have fallen into a funk, wandering from room to room. We leave on Sunday, and the last few days in a place give me that limbo-like feeling (not the dance but the place that unbaptized catholics were sent).

Everyone keeps asking us when will we be back. Jeez, we haven't even left yet! But maybe it's their way of saying that we will be missed. The truth is that we don't know when we will be back, but it probably won't be for 4 1/2 months again. Unless (1) the French Consulate opens an office in Moab; (2) the dollar ends its downward spiral and begins a 'surge'; (3) Ryanair or some other airline begins a Moab-Carcassonne route; and (4) we could figure out how to operate Mr. O's Place guest house on an "on-your-honor" basis. Likely? J'ne sais pas.

We don't intentionally keep our friends in suspense with vague answers. We just can't commit. So then they pry deeper. What will you miss the most? Knowing that Doug crafted a well thought-out list, I felt compelled to do some soul-searching. I can't find fault with any of his items, but what will I miss the most?

I find it hard to put into words, but I will miss life on the street. Right now, I sit in a chair pecking away at the computer and am inches from the front window that is inches from Rue du Four. Our curtains are never closed, and we only close our shutters when we go to bed (OK we do go to bed early). We watch everyone go by, and whether we admit it or not, everybody looks in open windows. I'm guilty. Eye contact from house to street always elicits a 'bon jour'.

I don't know all my neighbors names, but I know their habits, who and what times they go to the boulangerie, their garden plots, walk their strollers or just sit in their doorways. I never grow tired of the "Screamer" (real name: Benjamen) and his endless motorcycle and race car sound effects from the seat of his bicycle up and down Rue du Four. I know when Marc is home by the sound of his toilet flushing. I know when Jake is going to school by someone calling Roy and Thor for their walk. Camille opening his shutters every morning and straighting his bug curtain is almost a religious ritual. Doug once asked the handsome beret-wearing bicycle-riding neighbor with two garden plots what his name was, but couldn't understand it; we watch him pedal by several times a day hauling produce, cuttings, or firewood kindling. We joke that he'll live to be 110, or maybe he is already. Every evening he sits with his lady friend or wife in the doorway down the street. A few of our fellow LeranCestralers, Pascaline and Berte (whom we have called Betty), live down the street or around the corner, so they are regular passers-by. And there are new-comers. The other night, a friend's parents were visiting, and as his Polish father was strolling by he saw Old Smokey and exclaimed through our open window, "Where did you get a tank like that?" He then came in and chatted for awhile before heading further down the street.

I have never had "life on the street" in the States. The closest I came is living in an old brownstone in Chicago. But I was in college at the time and the building was chopped into wasn't even close. I'm sure at one time things were different in Chicago, because my dad used to talk about everyone sitting out on the front porch, the place where life happened. I think suburban architecture in the States has put an end to the front porch, and replaced it with a remote-controlled 3-car garage so you can enter your house without leaving your vehicle. And then go immediately into your privacy-fenced backyard without interacting with anyone.

Life on the street in Leran has, admittedly, at times been a great source of irritation and frustration (remember Le Fumers...). Now I find it rather ironic that it is the memory I will treasure most.

Friday, September 14, 2007

A Season of Melancholia

I’m beginning to feel a little melancholy these days. Summer is ending in a few days and our time in France is over in little more than a week. The fetes and festivals are mostly over except for harvest festivals. The light has changed, almost imperceptibly, but it is now a lower, slanting light, rather than the high in the sky light of a month ago. We were so busy with our tourist activities last week we didn’t notice the inevitable change.

There are fewer patrons at the bar, in fact for an hour on Friday evening, I was the only patron. The traffic is lighter, there are fewer cars, campers, caravans, and horse trailers heading back from a day at Lac Montbel. Over in the Aude, the grape harvest has just begun and the air is at times a little smoky with things burning in piles and smoke rising into the air.

The fantastic pace of summer is over. To me it is reminiscent of Yellowstone as the summer draws to a close; the visitors head home, the kids go back to school, and the bears continue steadily, purposefully fattening up for hibernation.

The weather is still perfect, at least today. It’s warm during the day and nicely cool at night and in the morning. Doves still call in the evening and bats are still busy at dusk.

The Marche Nocturne Leran is over and it was great fun, but we couldn’t go on at that pace for too much longer. We’re not in college anymore and the activity is unsustainable. Still, it leaves me a little sad.

We prepare to leave France. We are buying food in small quantities and trying to eat up things that have been the refrigerator all summer. We contemplate how to say goodbye to everyone and we realize there is no perfect way to say Au Revoir. We are thinking about what we need to do to prepare the house for a long winter with no one home. We have a possibility of renters taking the house but at this point we don’t know.

I’m sitting at the bar alone on a Friday evening, making notes for this post, and where once it was all hustle and bustle, now it is quiet. You can hear birdsong and conversations drifting down from windows along the street. It’s that quiet. Cats lie in the sun along Cours St. Jacques now, instead of in the shade.

I’m the only one at the bar. I drink much slower.

The leaves are just beginning to turn and some have already fallen. Here and in Mirepoix the city workers are already raking up a few leaves as they clean the streets. Brown leaves blow across the Cours St. Jacques. The color of the trees has changed from bright vivid green to the tired, dry, brittle green that precedes autumn. Some leaves have a hint of yellow. Out in the countryside, the fields are brown, some recently turned over, recently plowed. The sunflowers that were once so bright yellow are now brown stalks with drooping heads awaiting threshing.

My thoughts turn to the hot tub in Moab on freezing, cold winter mornings. And we have had scary thoughts about how the dry, red desert landscape will look after a summer in this lush and ancient land. We must be some of the last summer people left in Leran. The ‘Le Fumers’ are long gone and mostly forgotten. The kids are back in school. Moms and Dads escort the little ones to school in the morning even though it’s only a short block or two away.

It will be good to see some of our old friends back in the US. We anticipate seeing some of our friends from Montana, heading down to the desert for a last snow free hike, or a last backpack trip, or the last river expedition of the season. It will be good to see our old friends as we pass through Colorado and our friends back in Moab.

It will actually be good to get away from here for awhile. Ten months back home will sharpen our senses and we will return with fresh eyes. But these last few days everything seems more special, even insignificant things. Will this be the last time I sit at the bar? Will this be the last time I see what seems like a driverless British car cruising down the road with no one in the driver's seat?

These past few days, everyone asks us, “When do you come back?” And we don’t really know for sure.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Busy, Busy Tourists

We've been very busy tourists this past week with my sister and brother-in-law here for the week. I won't give you a blow by blow description on the days, however, I will give you the highlights of the week.
Peggy and Tony went to Albi to see the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum which is a must see whether you are into his art or not. It's a fantastic museum with a great range of his work, as well as some of his influences, his lithographic stones and some artifacts. Together, we visited the walled city of Carcassonne, hiked up to Cathar castle and massacre site at Montsegur, visited Mirepoix on Monday morning for the market, the caves at Niaux where we saw 13,000 year old drawings, took a drive into the Pyrenees, had a fantastic dinner at the Abbe in Camon, took a drive to see boats go through the locks at Castelnaudary, saw the beautiful brickwork around Mazeres and had drinks at the bar here in Leran. That's just the high points, mind you.
Perhaps the strangest few hours of the visit were in Vicdessos, a small village up in the Pyrenees. We had just visited the caves at Niaux, and unfortunately we were not allowed to take our cameras with us, hence no photographs. (But you could Google it.) We came out of the caves quite hungry and went looking for lunch. At Vicdessos we saw a quaint hotel's restaurant with a terrace overlooking the little creek, so we parked and walked in. Unfortunately, we couldn't get the outdoor table because it was reserved. We walked in, sat down and waited. Not much happened for quite awhile. Our stomachs were growling and the staff was ignoring us. Suddenly, as we were loosing patience, a plate of meat and pate along with a salad appeared. We hadn't gotten menus yet. We assumed it was the appetizer course and soon someone would be along to tell us of our options. We waited and yet no menu or waitstaff arrived. Suddenly, what did show up was the waiter with four pork chops and large plate of white beans with pork bones. None of us were Jewish, Muslim, or vegetarians so we dug in. It was good but we were still puzzling over our lack of choice and the fact we didn't know what we were paying. A plate of cheeses finished off the lunch. Fortunately we had some cash because they didn't take credit cards. We walked out, stuffed and confused. Only then did we see the little sign stating the only choice was the Plat du Jour, viande et legume at 15 Euro.
It's been a great time and we look forward to more visits from our friends and family next year. I credit Nancy with all the great pictures and be sure to click on them to enlarge.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Another Casualty of War

We went this morning to a Vide Grenier in the town of Manses. That's a garage sale held in the middle of town and people set up tables and sell off their junk. In the square, where in every French town there is inevitably a monument to the "enfants" lost in WWI, was this inscription. In 1944 an unlucky individual by the name of Albert Vidal was assassinated by the Gestapo late in the war.

Picturesque Leran Residents, Part I

This is the cat we call "Old One Eye" for obvious reasons. He already had this abscess, or wound, or birth defect when we first noticed him. It doesn't seem to be getting any better or any worse. He doesn't seem to belong to anyone. Tough cat.

During one of the repititions for the "Spectacular" Old One Eye came wandering throughout the figurants, the horses and hangers -on just like he owned the chateau grounds. Well, he might not be the best looking cat but I'll miss the little feller and I hope he is still around when we get back next summer.

Another Visit to Carcassonne

As we may have already noted on another post, Carcassonne is a pretty touristy spot, but you have to see it once in your life. We did it again today with my sister Peggy, and my beau-frere, Tony. They are here for a week so we made a trip through the vineyards around Limoux. (The grapes are hanging from the vines and are ready for harvest any time now. ) We wandered around the Cite until I couldn't stand it any longer. Then we had a great lunch and shared a bottle of blanquette, the white sparkling wine that precedes champagne, which of course we told you about in an earlier post.

The cite was absolutely packed with visitors. I heard voices in Italian, Spanish, French, German, American and the Queen's English. It's been strange to be here in Leran, which is so far off the beaten path of tourism, and then visit Carcassonne, which is one of the places that has been a tourist destination for over a century. Carcassonne is beautiful and impressive. A nice place to visit but I wouldn't want to live there.

Nancy took these photos of the trio of gypsies that played the accordion and handled the puppets.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Party to End All Parties

Last Friday must have signaled the beginning of the end of summer in Leran. We attended the final cocktail party in the street, or, Marche Nocturne. It has been an amazing gathering of what we now consider 'old friends' hashing over the week's activities. We begin by sitting at Le Leran Bar at a small table with four chairs, and as everyone arrives they pull a chair over. By the time we move over to the banquet tables in the middle of Cours St. Jacques, we sometimes have 12 sitting around the tiny bar table.

Conversations always run over each other, but lately it always gets back to what will happen with the bar. Nelley and Thierry are selling out and probably moving to Narbonne Plage. They are originally from Paris, and Leran is just not working out. We all have our theories about how they could have made it work better---stay OPEN during the lunch hours, have consistent hours, sell decent wine, etc., but hindsight is always better. Rumors fly about possible new owners, a few of whom we know. The bar is the center of the universe for the English-speaking community in Leran, the 'post office' of the old pioneer days. And, in Leran, it is the only bar. So, lots of reminiscing lately, both by us and others. Lee-anne remarked that she gets a little sad this time of year, as all the 'summer people' leave and winter sets in.

But, what a better way to end a two-month long string of parties than to have yet another party! Only the French would figure that out. On Saturday night a grand feast was held in la Place du Tueliels to thank all the vendors for participating. Moules in a Vietnamese sauce avec riz, fromage, vin, desert, cafe, encore moules! Parfait! Afterwards, Doug commented that if we were thanking the vendors, then why weren't we serving them rather than once again them serving us?

Maybe because we knew summer was drawing to a close, we fell into spontaneous conversation. Somebody started singing the Hokey-Pokey song (remember....put your right foot in, put your right foot out)....but wait, they were singing HOKEY-COKEY! What's this? You've got it all wrong! We bantered back and forth with the Brits about the correct verbiage, with the Americans and Aussies sticking to Pokey and Brits insisting on Cokey. It was all good fun, but of course it got me thinking----how could they all be wrong? A Google investigation the next morning revealed some interesting documentation---both sets of lyrics evolved somewhat around the same time circa WWII, and apparently each has been copyrighted.

We had opportunity to meet new people at the dinner to end all dinners. 'Maggie the Human' came over from Chalabre. She is called this in a blog we have followed prior to moving to France, as a way of distinguishing her from the blog author's dog Maggie. Now that I have met both Maggie the dog and Maggie the Human, I really don't think it is necessary to go to such great extent to characterize them. Maggie the dog is a black lab and Maggie the Human is Irish with auburn hair, so why not describe them that way? We got such a laugh over that and I'm afraid Doug and I wore out the joke, but Maggie invited us over for dinner anyway (auburn Maggie that is).

I know some of you had to sit down when you saw the photos of appeared to be a clone of Doug doing something like DANCING. Those of you who know him well know his philosophy, his medical excuse, and now have grounds for blackmail. This is indeed Doug, and he is dancing with Isabella, the owner of the Leran epicerie. All I can say is that when the music started, Isabella started grabbing partners and one does not say no to Isabella. She may be short but she is not shy.

Thanks to Alan and Eileen for releasing the highly classified photos of the dancing Doug.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

The British Are Coming, The British Are Coming

Nancy and I fell into an interesting conversation a couple of nights ago at the final Marche Nocturne Leran. We were at a table in the middle of the street and Nancy was sitting next to some French people. I was sitting on her other side and next to some British friends. I remember getting a flute (loaf of bread) from the baker and coming back to the table and setting the bread in the middle of our group who were about to partake of some warm, melted brie. I set it down, apparently upside down. The Frenchman next to us felt strongly enough about that to reach out and turn the loaf right side up. We shared a smile at my ignorance.

The next thing I knew, Nancy was engaged in conversation with the first Frenchman’s buddy. After awhile I drifted over to listen in because the conversation seemed to be getting very interesting. As I began to listen, Nancy was telling the French group that we were from Utah and they were surprised we were not British. One gentleman had realized that he had seen our petit camionette in Mirepoix, and remembered the Utah plates and the “Worst President Ever” sticker.

We talked for awhile, a little in French, mostly in English. They were very curious about us. They wondered where Utah was exactly. They thought it was in the Midwest, confusing it with Iowa, I suppose. We talked about our parts in the Spectacular, as the first Americans to participate in it, and they remarked on my memorable and challenging role as a monk. That brought up this rather amusing exchange and we had a great laugh all around.

“I remember you from the Leran Spectacular. You were a most excellent clergyman. Mon ami, you are no longer an American. Now you are a French monkey.”
“Monsieur, I am not sure if you are aware of the difference between the English words for monk and monkey?”
“Ah, mon dieu, I am sorry if I have called you a French monkey, je suis desole.”
“Pas de problem, Monsieur.”

I am a little fuzzy about the flow of conversation, but two points stood out for both Nancy and I. First, they asked why we were in Leran. We have been asked this before by French people in social situations. They are very curious about what we are doing here and why.

We are not sure how to interpret this question. Is the question; “Why are you here in Leran?”, or “Why did you choose Leran out of all the villages in France?”, or “Why did you choose to live in France and not Italy or Spain?”, or “Why did you leave the United States?”. We are also not sure why they are asking this question. Is it because they want to make a huge profit and sell their house to a foreigner, or do they want to figure out some way to make their village much less attractive to these foreign house buyers, or do they want to figure out why everyone loves France so much? Or some other reason.

So, naturally, we are unsure of how to answer the question they have asked. Our answer tends to be along the lines of , “Well, France is beautiful, the people are warm and friendly and the wine and cheese are excellent and the weather is good.”

I think the question is perhaps a mixture of all of the above. As you may or may not know, France is experiencing a wave of in-migration from, among others, the British. We’ve had many conversations with our British friends here and we are curious why so many have made the big leap across the channel, or have bought second homes. There are a number of reasons for the out migration from England and some of the rationale we have heard are: personal security, congestion, weather, cheaper and more land, cheaper housing, and a general dislike of the political and cultural situation in Great Britain. And this brings us to the second half of “THE CONVERSATION”.

Sometime after learning that we were American the exchange drifted to the differences the French feel for Americans as opposed to the British. There was some talk of history; Lafayette and the French contribution to the Rebellion during the Revolution, the constant warfare between the British and French and the hard feelings that still seem to exist between the two groups, the kinship Americans and French feel for each other due to our revolutions and our wars with the British. We talked some more about those strong French/American feelings and conversely, Nancy and I told him how Americans feel a great kinship toward the British because of a common language (sort of), the gift of a great legal system, our common ancestry and the culture we inherited and share.

But then the conversation got kind of weird. The Frenchman with the best English began expressing his resentment about the sheer numbers of English migrating to France and the problems he sees as a result. (Believe me, I’ve had this conversation before. Change a few names of nationalities and the nature of the problems, and I believe we’ve all had this conversation before.) This gentleman was from Mirepoix, but I believe the situation is similar in other parts of France. The gentleman was very pointed in exempting us Americans as part of the problem and perhaps revealed a little of his anger at the situation. I’m not sure what his problem is but it could be the cost of housing in this region has escalated, or that he feels surrounded by foreigners, or that he has heard some unkind things said. He did not bring up the fact that more French are now residing in England than the other way around. (Apparently, many young French head for London for good jobs they can’t find at home.)

In any case, this is the first time we’ve been made to feel uncomfortable here, or anything less than a welcome addition to Belle France. I have sympathy for the French gentleman. Some, but not much. Nancy and I felt the invasion of newly minted millionaire Californians after living a long time in Montana. I suspect this is what the Frenchman is feeling, because the British migrating to France come with some disposable income from the high price of property in England and the strong Pound Sterling against the Euro. But to my way of thinking, the British I’ve met here are going to be some of France’s best citizens. They are educated, working hard, spending money, learning the language, paying their taxes and most aren’t robbing banks, and none that I know of are hopped up on crank, beating their wives or stressing the social service sector very much. Every country should wish for an in-migration like that.

Indeed, it was an interesting conversation. I hope that I’ve related it properly and with all due respect to everyone. It is an important topic for discussion and serious thought. We who are visitors or new-comers to France should be aware there is some animosity out there.